The history of MTN Nigeria Communications Plc (MTN Nigeria) is replete with controversies and litigation, unlike other players in the telecom sector. Some might argue that MTN’s size naturally attracts its issues. This would, however, be too easy a way out of truly analyzing its issues. Others would argue upon review, that it is more about its attitude toward Nigeria and Nigerians, in other words, the Big Man syndrome, that is the catalyst for its issues. Since its inception, MTN has hobbled from issue to issue. It has won some, lost others and settled some.

The company seems to relish in courting what many refer to as ‘needless controversies’, the outcome of which is the toga of arrogance that it adorns in seeking positions only beneficial to itself and seemingly disregarding government and regulatory positions, the impact of its actions on Nigeria and Nigerians as well as other non-altruistic positions.

One may strive to seek to understand a start-up company’s choice of courting controversies as a means of creating awareness and corporate presence but for a company like MTN Nigeria that is about to celebrate its silver jubilee, one would have thought that it should be weary of unnecessary controversies. This is, however, not the story of MTN Nigeria, unfortunately.

Currently, the company is in a court battle instituted against it, its business partner, ATC Nigeria Wireless Infrastructure Limited (ATC Nigeria), and three other bodies, by the Incorporated Trustees of HEDA Resources Centre (HEDA) over the construction of 2,500 base trans-receiver stations across Nigeria for MTN’s operations. HEDA a civil society group, has gone to court to stop MTN Nigeria and ATC Nigeria from siting new base stations where there are already existing base stations citing health and environmental concerns. The case with suit No: FHC/L/CS/2359/2023, was filed in the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, on 20 November 2023 and is still pending before the court.

In October 2015, MTN Nigeria’s arrogance and disregard for the country’s laws got it enmeshed in a regulatory quagmire resulting to a fine of N1.04 trillion (about $5.2 billion) against it, for the failure to disconnect 5.1 million unregistered subscribers from its network. Its imprudence did not end there but extended to the point where it was alleged to have bribed a senior government official so the fine could be reduced.

In yet another instance, MTN Nigeria shunned Nigerians’ calls for the adoption of per-second billing as its sister subsidiaries in other climes deployed and kept insisting, for many years, that such deployment was impracticable in Nigeria. The fleecing of Nigerians by MTN Nigeria continued until Glo Mobile debunked MTN Nigeria’s denials in 2003 and debuted with per-second billing. Even when the industry regulator, NCC insisted that it deploy per-second billing, MTN Nigeria was reluctant in its compliance and went so far as to illegally charge subscribers who wanted to migrate to that platform the sum of N100 each.

A look at MTN Nigeria’s over two-decade operations in Nigeria also reveals a series of corporate governance issues, including tax defaults, illegal repatriations of profits and other corporate vices. In 2018, the Federal Government, following a ten-year “revenue assets investigation” conducted between 2007 and 2017, accused MTN Nigeria of having some liabilities which included alleged unpaid/underpaid import duties of about N242.25 billion as well as withholding and value-added taxes of about $1.3 billion. Last year, a tax appeal tribunal sitting in Lagos ordered MTN Nigeria to pay $72,551,059 in tax default to the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS).

What beats most people’s imaginations is that while other subsidiaries in the MTN Group operating in other markets have had issues (Iran and Afghanistan come to mind with the very serious allegations against them), they largely seem to be responsible corporate citizens in their countries of operation. MTN Nigeria, on the other hand, tends to be roguish and more hawkish in its operations. Its services are poor, yet they appear the most expensive in Nigeria.

These issues could only be as a result of arrogance believing that, by appointing eminent Nigerians who have headed regulatory bodies with oversight over its activities to the Board of Directors of the company, it would always be able to bulldoze its path by way of influence peddling through any regulatory issue. It is worthy of note that some notable civil society groups in the country have petitioned the relevant regulatory agencies to investigate these Board appointments, citing corporate governance as well as conflict of interest issues.

The company needs to reevaluate its operations in the country to respect the law and regulatory authorities as well as have more regard for Nigerians, whose patronage earns it the position of the largest revenue earner in the MTN Group. Nigerians deserve a better deal with MTN Nigeria and the Nigerian government is supposed to stand up and ensure that this happens by insisting on good corporate governance, without being swayed or intimidated by the company or the people who sit on its board.

*Olayiwola Luqman, FCA. Business analyst writes from Lagos

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